“It looked like my insides were crying”: China’s COVID curbs hit the mental health of young people

HONG KONG, Aug. 30 Reuters) – Zhang Meng suffered a nervous breakdown last December. The 20-year-old found herself sobbing on the stairs of her dormitory, driven to despair by the repeated COVID blockades of her university campus in Beijing.

The lock had meant she was mostly confined to her room and unable to meet up with friends. There were also strict restrictions on her when she could visit the canteen or take a shower. Describing himself as someone who craves social interaction in person, Zhang said the restrictions had “removed the safety net that kept me on my feet and I felt like my whole being was falling”.

That month she was diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety.

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Yao, also 20 and who asked not to use his first name, had his first nervous breakdown in high school where he was a boarder, unable to understand why the lockdown policies were so harsh. He said that one day he had to take refuge in a school bathroom, crying so hard it “felt like my insides were crying.”

In early 2021 while at Beijing University, unable to shake off that depression and also displeased with not taking the courses he wanted for fear of upsetting his father, Yao attempted suicide.

China has taken some of the toughest and most frequent lockdown measures in the world in its determination to eradicate every COVID outbreak, claiming it saves lives and pointing to its low pandemic death toll of around 5,200 to date.

It’s an effort that has shown little sign of abandonment, but the impact of policy on mental health alarms medical experts and, as Zhang and Yao’s experiences have shown, is already doing its job.

“China’s blockades had a huge human toll with the shadow of mental illness that negatively impacted Chinese culture and economy in the years to come,” says a June editorial in the British medical journal The Lancet.

In particular, experts fear for the mental health of adolescents and young adults, who are more vulnerable due to their age and lack of control over their lives, and who face much greater educational stress and economic pressures than previous generations. .

The number of young people affected is potentially enormous. About 220 million Chinese children and young people have been confined for extended periods due to COVID restrictions, according to Education Ministry estimates in 2020. It did not respond to a Reuters request for an updated figure and comment on the subject.

CHILDREN UNDER PRESSURE

COVID curbs have sometimes forced young people into extreme situations.

During Shanghai’s two-month draconian blockade this year, for example, some between the ages of 15 and 18 had to isolate themselves in hotels because they couldn’t go home.

“They had to cook by themselves and had no people to talk to, so it was really very difficult for them,” Frank Feng, vice principal of Lucton, an international school in Shanghai, told Reuters.

While the data examining the mental health of young people in China and the impact of the blockades and the pandemic is scarce, what is there is grim.

According to an April 2020 survey of 39,751 pupils and published in the US journal Current Psychology in January, about 20% of Chinese middle and high school students who learn remotely during the lockdown had suicidal thoughts. Suicidal ideation is sometimes described as when a person thinks it would be better to die, even though the person may not have the intention of committing suicide at the time.

More generally across age groups, “psychological counseling” searches on the Chinese search engine Baidu more than tripled in the first seven months of 2022 compared to the same period a year earlier.

For many teens, COVID blockages came during critical exam years. If the stigma of infection isn’t enough, the desperation to avoid missing a life-changing exam due to catching COVID or, much more commonly, being considered close contact has many families isolating themselves for months earlier. the exam period, teachers said.

Exacerbating academic pressure are bleak job prospects. While overall unemployment stands at 5.4%, the rate for urban youth has risen to 19.9%, the highest level ever recorded, as corporate hiring falls due to the pandemic and regulatory crackdowns on the health sectors. technology and mentoring.

Most of the students are also only children due to China’s one-child policy of 1980-2015 and are aware that they will have to help support their parents in the future.

According to a Fudan University survey of around 4,500 young people this year, around 70% expressed varying degrees of anxiety.

The pandemic and blockade is also thought to be fueling disaffection over the intense pressure to move forward in life, symbolized by the so-called “reclining” movement that gained tremendous social media traction in China last year as many young people they embraced the idea of ​​doing the bare minimum to get by.

A TOLL OF TWO DECADES?

For its part, the Ministry of Education has launched a series of measures to improve the mental health of students during the pandemic, including the introduction of compulsory mental health classes in colleges and a push to increase the number of school counselors, therapists and psychiatrists in the country.

But mental health has only attracted attention in China in the past 20 years, and the ministry’s efforts to install counselors in schools are relatively new. Most schools wouldn’t have one last year. The guidelines published in June 2021 provide for a ratio of at least 1 consultant for every 4,000 students nationwide.

State media have also addressed the issue.

A June 6 article in the China Daily focusing on the mental health impact of COVID brakes on vulnerable groups, including adolescents, quoted Lu Lin, president of Peking University Sixth Hospital, as saying that the “toll on the mental health of people could last more than two decades. ” .

Data from early 2020 shows that one-third of isolated home residents had experienced conditions such as depression, anxiety and insomnia, he said.

Lu estimated that most would recover after an outbreak disappeared, but 10% would not be able to fully return to normal, noting that he had adolescent patients who had developed a gambling addiction, had trouble sleeping. and they continued to be downcast and reluctant to go out into the open.

For Zhang, the blockades and subsequent depression completely disrupted his worldview. Once satisfied with her plans to study Chinese language and literature, disillusionment with how the blocks were handled sparked interest in studying abroad.

“I was pretty patriotic when I graduated from high school … this feeling is slowly disappearing. It’s not that I don’t trust the government anymore, it’s more the feeling that the smell of masks and disinfectant has penetrated deep into my bones.”

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Reporting by Farah Master in Hong Kong and Xiaoyu Yin in Beijing; Additional reports by Casey Hall in Shanghai and Kiki Lo in Hong Kong; Editing by Edwina Gibbs

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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